NOEL KING, HOST:
Most of the smartphones in the world run on Google's Android software, but did Google play fair when it wrote that software? The Supreme Court will consider that question today. Oracle accuses Google of illegally copying its code. Both companies, I should note, are financial supporters of NPR. And here's our own Shannon Bond.
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Oracle says this case is straightforward. If you think about "Harry Potter..."
(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE")
JIM DALE: Chapter 1, "The Boy Who Lived." Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of No. 4 Privet Drive...
BOND: ...What if someone took the chapter titles, character names and other key parts of a "Harry Potter" book, wrote their own version and sold it? Dorian Daley is Oracle's top lawyer.
DORIAN DALEY: Simply wouldn't be fair for a copyist to copy all that, write another book for commercial gain and impact the market for the original.
BOND: She claims that's what Google did when it used some code called Java. Java is software that's owned by Oracle, and Oracle has actually used this "Harry Potter" example in its legal filings. But Google and its supporters say that metaphor is all wrong.
ROBERT CHEETHAM: The more apt analogy would be the structure of the book itself.
BOND: Robert Cheetham is the founder and CEO of a small software company called Azavea. He sides with Google in this fight because he says this type of code is a fundamental building block for software.
CHEETHAM: A book - it's got a spine to it, and it's in sequential order with page numbers. It's the mechanism for accessing and using that book that is the interface for not just "Harry Potter," but all books.
BOND: Cheetham says this is how software development works. Developers rely on using certain bits of code to build their programs. If you could open up an Android phone and see all 15 million lines of code, about 11,000 are the same as in Java, and that code is key to making the software work. Google's top lawyer, Kent Walker, says these bits of code are...
KENT WALKER: What lets you take a picture using an iPhone, store it in Google Photos and edit it on a Microsoft laptop.
BOND: He argues no one should be allowed to claim they own this kind of code.
WALKER: This has been the settled understanding of the application of copyright to software ever since we've been developing software.
BOND: But Oracle disagrees. Daley says if Google wants to use some of Java's code, it needs to pay for it. The company is seeking $9 billion in damages.
DALEY: Google is essentially offering a competing product and using, you know, our software in that competing product and giving it away for free. So it's really hard to compete with that.
BOND: So what does this all boil down to in today's Supreme Court arguments? There are actually two big questions here. Tejas Narechania teaches law at UC Berkeley.
TEJAS NARECHANIA: First is, do the copyright laws even extend to this sort of expression?
BOND: Meaning is Oracle's code like a "Harry Potter" book?
NARECHANIA: The second question is, even if Oracle can claim that sort of protection, whether it's fair use for Google to use them.
BOND: And that depends on how the justices interpret copyright law. Whatever the ruling is, it will have impact way beyond these wealthy tech giants and even Silicon Valley to the entertainment and publishing industries, which rely on copyright. Shannon Bond, NPR News.
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